Ethical, fair working conditions

Systems that exploit Nature also exploit humans. “Plantation agriculture rapidly exhausted the soil,” Jamelle Bouie writes in the New York Times about the slavers of the US South.

For most of my career I have been a tech evangelist. I have given countless presentations about the wonderful designs and user experiences of Google and Amazon. I was particularly impressed by the “customer obsession” that lay at the heart of the Amazon philosophy.

There were some tiny doubts that I easily pushed away. The word ‘obsession’ has a sinister ring to it but for years I saw it as a reflection of customer experience brought to the highest level of excellence. All my experiences with Amazon as a customer were excellent. Good prices. Fast delivery. Great support. What more could you ask for?

Initially, when I started reading about the horrible working conditions of Amazon warehouse workers, I was worried but not worried enough to consider disrupting my life of convenience. Conscience is an annoyance, an irritant, easily salved for most of us by cheap prices and fast delivery. You want to think of yourself as being fair, good, a decent person. However, I couldn’t avoid hearing more and more about the ‘gig economy’—the dystopian landscape Big Tech is building for millions of workers.

When I was young I worked in warehouses and factories and while the work wasn’t fantastic, it was bearable. You weren’t utterly exhausted at the end of the day. Your every second wasn’t monitored and tracked. I talked to people working in Amazon-style warehouses and it just sent shudders through me. These people were being treated like modern-day slaves. Exhausting, humiliating work, terrible wages, precious few benefits, horrible job security.

It's all connected. The fact that Amazon treats its workers horribly is connected with the fact that Amazon is a giant pusher of overconsumption, that Amazon produces enough plastic waste every year to clingfilm the entire Earth, that encourages and profits from a way of living that is destroying conditions for future life.

It’s the exact same with Uber and Facebook and thousands more tech companies that are profiting from the most base and cruel exploitation. Facebook is notorious for undermining democracy and being the world’s greatest factory for misinformation. To stay just on the right side of the law, it outsources the content moderation for its toxic sewers to the lowest paid workers it can find. “It feels like speaking the truth or standing up for your rights is a crime,” an employee at a Nairobi-based Facebook content sweatshop told TIME. “I feel like it’s modern slavery, like neo-colonialism.”

It's all connected. Much of the e-waste from the Global North sails on “ships of doom” to “sacrifice zones” in the Global South. 18 million children and adolescents and 13 million women toil in some of the worst working conditions ever recorded as they smash and burn cables, old computers, smartphones, poisoning themselves, and the land, water and air around them. Children as young as five are used to pull wires from small devices that have been deliberately designed so they cannot be easily disassembled. This is just one more example of the human toll that our fetish for innovation and new trashy, techy things in the Global North exacts on Nature and other poor humans.

Let there be no mistake. It is the rich Europeans and North Americans who are ravaging the climate. Caught up in our smugness and arrogance, we continue to colonize and destroy, just this time we think we have created an outsourcing model that allows us to claim plausible deniability.

A person living in sub-Saharan Africa causes about 0.6 tons of CO2 per year. The average US citizen produces 14.5 tons. And of course these averages hide the much bigger disparities that exist within populations, with Roman Abramovich, the richest man in the world, being responsible for over 30,000 tons of CO2 every year. “The inequality is just insane,” the lead author of a report published by Nature Sustainability states. “If we want to reduce our carbon emissions, we really need to do something about the consumption patterns of the super-rich.”

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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